Great wines possess a kind of intensity that flatters the nose and palate, as well as the imagination, with a comprehensive scope of sensation and character without burdening our faculties with any quality of the flamboyant or egotistical; they burn with a hard, gem-like flame — as Walter Pater bade us live — rather than self-immolating in the baroque furnaces of exaggeration and manipulation. Great wines exert a sense of finely tuned balance in addition to a paradoxical element of risk, at times almost playfulness, these qualities subsumed into the overall impression of integration, generosity and completeness. The models I look at today, both samples for review, as I am required to inform you by the Federal Trade Commission, exemplify such standards. Nothing links these wines except the fact that I tasted them on sequential days and that they’re beautifully wrought renditions of the grapes from which they’re made.
First, however, a comment on what’s called the “tasting note.” There’s a hue and cry in the recent press about the death of the tasting note; the tasting note is outmoded, assert its opponents, a relic of a time when wine critics were deemed authorities and their notes — typically involving Bordeaux Classified Growths, Burgundy Premier and Grand Crus and great German rieslings — regarded as sacred texts. Such notions, we’re told, are hopeless in the world of the Internet, instant reaction and analysis, the cohort-like animation of word-of-mouth, blogs, smart phones and hanging loose. I think that’s all fine and dandy. Certainly the tasting note as perfected by a magazine like the Wine Spectator — telegraphic, gnomic, superficial and pointed toward the all-important numerical score — seems unhelpful except to consumers primarily interested in the dynamic of that large, black, bold-face rating. Such punchy tasting notes bear the same relationship to the characterization of a wine in a full review as a capsule summary of a movie does to a review in The New York Times or The New Yorker.
If I may self-advocate here, I have been taking notes on wine for 30 years, and I use those notes to assemble not merely a review of the wine but a narrative that blends history, geography and intention with an attempt to get to the heart of a product, in detail and dimension. I want My Readers to take away from such a review a sense of where a wine came from, the importance of its origin in a place and time and climate, what it smells like and tastes like and feels like over passing moments and what its potential is for growth and development — and perhaps what foods it could profitably accompany. Much as I love the physical properties of many of the wines I taste every year, I also dote on a wine’s chronicle from vineyard through the hands of the winemaker to the bottle on your table. If any of you read this blog and utter a sigh and heartfelt, “Oh, there F.K. goes again, talking about vineyard elevation and late harvesting and oak aging,” well, you should be used to that by now, because you’re stuck with it.
It’s true that not all wines require or deserve such full-blown treatment; many of the products I mention on this blog are simple quaffing wines meant to be enjoyed without much thought, and there’s not a thing wrong with that. The wines that I find richly rewarding though and that capture my attention — as did the two wines under review in this post — seem valuable not merely because of their high quality and complex character but because they imply a narrative that extents into a personal, historical and geological past and into the future of possibility.
The first image above is from my wine notebook, actually a ledger, from 1986 and 1987; the second image represents a small portion of wine notebooks from about 1995 to 2005.
The Villa Huesgen Schiefer Riesling Trocken 2010 derives from steep vineyards that rise 100 to 200 meters above the Mosel River. The slightly fractured landscape lends the slate-impacted vineyard a faceted relationship to the sky, allowing the 30- to 35-year-old vines a multitude of exposures to sunlight as the day proceeds; the result seems to be an unusual degree of richness in the grapes, as well as a profoundly significant array of mineral elements. The estate traces its origin to 1735, when Johannes Huesgen (1697-1762) moved to the town of Traben-Trarbach in the Mosel region and began buying vineyards; in 1762, his son Johann-Wilhelm, with his mother and brother-in-law, founded a wine merchant business. Among the family’s most striking achievements is Villa Huesgen itself, one of the most famous Art Nouveau houses in Europe, designed by notable architect Bruno Möhring in 1904.
I don’t want to wax too poetical here or wade into the murky miasma of metaphor, but the bouquet and the flavors of the Villa Huesgen Schiefer Riesling Trocken 2010 evince such a powerful perception of rain on dusty slate tiles, of damp lilacs, of the snap of gunflint and the mingling of crushed limestone and lime peel, of lemongrass and ginger, of quince and spiced pear that it remains with me vividly two days later. This marked intensity, however, while distinctly present in nose and mouth, is not the least overwhelming; rather it evokes an impression that’s almost poignant in its acuteness and its weaving of infinite delicacies into a fabric of strength and elegance. Close to talc-like in texture but enlivened by crisp and crystalline acidity, Villa Huesgen Schiefer Riesling Trocken 2010, made all in stainless steel, is fresh and immediately appealing yet should age beautifully through 2018 to 2020. This, friends, is great riesling. 11.5% alcohol. We drank this wine with wholewheat linguine, roasted golden beets and beet greens, kale, leeks and Gruyere. Excellent. About $35.
Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Ca.
The Wild Horse Cheval Sauvage Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Maria Valley, is the finest wine I have tasted from the winery in years. Director of winemaking is Clay Brock, and winemaker is Chrissy Wittmann. I don’t know to what extent the wine was a collaboration between them, but whatever the case, this is well-nigh perfect pinot. The grapes for the 2009 version all came from the well-known Sierra Madre Vineyard; previous vintages have been blends of several vineyards in Santa Maria, which, except for a tiny portion in San Luis Obispo County, lies within Santa Barbara County. Santa Maria, still largely isolated compared to wine regions farther north in the state, is cool climate, with its western-most area cooled even more by sea-breezes. It you ever stay in the vicinity, it’s wondrous to see the whole valley filled with fog early in the morning.
Wild Horse was founded in 1982 by Ken Volk; the winery and its vineyard occupy land above the Salinas River near Templeton, in northern San Luis Obispo County, in the Paso Robles appellation. In 2003, Volk sold the brand, the winery and the 64-acre property to Peak International, a subsidiary of Jim Beam Brands Worldwide. In 2007, Beam was swallowed up by the Icon Estates division of Constellation Brands. In January 2011, as reported in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Constellation decided to “cut back operations” at Wild Horse, shifting the cellaring of Wild Horse wines to Estancia Winery in Soledad and Gonzalez Winery in Gonzales. The crush occurs at the original winery, with the reserve wines still “processed” there. Few things stay the same in California (sung to the tune of “Welcome to the Hotel California”).
Wild Horse Cheval Sauvage Pinot Noir 2009 offers exactly what I want in a pinot from The Golden State, that is, an ineffable sense of tension, resolution and balance between elegance and energy, between spareness and vigor. The color is medium cherry-mulberry from stem to stern. Aromas of red cherries, cranberry and rhubarb are permeated by touches of cloves, hints of toast and licorice and, beyond all that, something fleshy, spicier and untamed, a bell-tone of wild berry and a hint of briers. This bevy of elements is not presented in a blatant fashion but rather as a tissue of subtleties and nuances exquisitely poised, dexterous and agile. The texture is supremely satiny, supple and lithe, a bit of window dressing on the stones and bones of the wine’s vibrantly acidic and scintillating earthy/graphite structure; it spent 14 months in French oak barrels. A few minutes in the glass bring in notes of blue plums, pomegranate, sassafras and fruitcake, with the latter’s attendant notes of dried fruit and spices. A refreshing 13.9 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2016 or ’17. Excellent. About $65.